When you have three films scoring in the 40s, you know that you're in for a damned good week at the movies. While The Expendables 2 will probably split audiences, ParaNorman should charm everyone equally. Meanwhile, Hope Springs proves that realism isn't the way forward, Sparkle shows us that not all that glitters is cinematic gold, and Beasts of the Southern Wild gives us a glimpse of a totally different world, not so far from our own.
EXPECTATIONS: I liked The Expendables, but in hindsight it was lacking one thing. Or rather, it had an abundance of one thing that it could have done with much less of: subtlety. Looking at The Expendables, it is clear that all of its best jokes are ones that you laugh at when you think about them afterward; they're called The Expendables yet none of them die; the American government props up and destroys dictatorships (a joke at the expense of Rambo III); and Dolph Lundgren undergoes spiritual cleansing by way of literal death and rebirth. What the sequel needs is to have that self-awareness ramped up, and judging by the trailers, I'm cautiously optimistic that this is the case. On the other hand, this one is directed by Simon West, a director whose filmography leaves me cold and whose most recent film, The Mechanic, was also too subtle for its own good.
REALITY: Subtlety has been well and truly murdered. It has been shot to pieces by a myriad of armaments and scattered to the four winds. And do you know what I did when I witnessed the violent death of subtlety, as depicted on screen in The Expendables 2? I laughed. I laughed long, loud and repeatedly. In years to come, people will gather around a television with this film lighting up the room while they count the decapitations and cheer every time Chuck Norris looks smug.
This time CIA operative Mr. Church (Bruce Willis) sends the titular mercenaries (Sylvester Stallone, Jason Statham, Dolph Lundgren, Terry Crews, Randy Couture and new recruit Liam Hemsworth*) to recover a MacGuffin from a villainous villain called Vilain (Jeane-Claude Van Damme). Along for the ride, for no discernible reason, is Maggie Chan (Nan Yu), whom the CIA wants protected at all costs. When Vilain kills the young Hemsworth, the rest of The Expendables go on a mission for revenge and get a little help along the way from their old friends Trench (Arnold Schwarzenegger) and Booker (Chuck Norris).
Stallone suffers from a stroke mid-gunfight and soldiers on with only one good side of his body.
That's barely a plot at all, I'm sure you'll agree. But it doesn't matter, does it? All we really need is a series of increasingly violent and explosive setpieces, resulting in the deaths of all the necessary people. The Expendables 2 provides this in spades. In fact, The Expendables 2 is disgustingly violent. It revels in severed limbs and buckets of blood. But, it also revels in the artificiality of it all. This isn't about real violence, it's about movie violence and the old-school sense of one-upmanship that existed among these action heroes during their heyday. Only now they're all doing it on the same screen at the same time, and we're all invited to laugh at them.
Every member of the cast is basically playing himself, or rather, they are playing their popular personae. We all know the Chuck Norris jokes and we're all sick of them already, but when a scene in The Expendables 2 basically has a back and forth between Norris and Stallone consisting of nothing but those jokes ("I heard a rumour you were bitten by a king cobra") there's something kind of magical about it. It's like watching old guys try and get in with their grandkids by reciting Internet memes, probably because that is literally what is happening. And did you know that Dolph Lundgren was a chemical engineer? The writers of this film do and they want to work that into his character. It all sounds a bit stupid, but these are the jokes the film does best. When Lundgren attempts some Captain Kirk-style on-the-job botching, it leads to one of the funniest scenes in the entire movie.
Willis' hands shake uncontrollably as he attempts to lift a gun. He fell asleep shortly after this photo was taken.It's all a big joke, you see. Everything is presented in such a flippant and ridiculous way that it's impossible to take it even remotely seriously (the villain is called Vilain, for God's sake!). It's a crowd-pleasing action spectacular, and all the biggest laughs come from either wacky visual gags or inside jokes. Unfortunately, there are a few missteps that lead to weird disparities in tone. A lot of the scenes get bogged down with really bizarre writing choices and clunky dialogue, like when Arnold Schwarzenegger tells Bruce Willis "I'll be back" and the best reply Bruce can muster is "You've been back enough. I'll be back!" "You've been back enough"!? That doesn't even make sense! Plus, a subplot involving 40 tons of plutonium seems to exist solely to give Van Damme some screentime doing evil and villainous things.
The first film had those same problems, but this installment has a better sense of how and when to go crazy. Once all the plot exposition is out of the way (which takes a little bit longer than maybe it should), it just goes directly to crazy town and doesn't stop. The third act is absolutely mental, with every aging action hero they could get their hands on shooting big guns at lots and lots of bad guys without taking a scratch themselves. This is the domain of the Saturday morning cartoon: This is G.I. Joe with blood geysers, where the only characters who are allowed to die are the new ones.
This all ties back into that artificiality of violence I was talking about earlier. Everything is not quite happening, it's a playground game of good guys killing bad guys where the dead people get to stand back up and go back to school when the game is over. While you might argue that the action scenes lack tension because of this, I'd argue back that the action scenes aren't about tension, but rather they are about ludicrous, wacky hijinks that just happen to include a lot of exploding heads.
Schwarzenegger spontaneously combusts during filming. His last words were incoherent.The film's biggest problem is that it is cinematographically ugly in places. During dialogue scenes, it is hard not to notice that everyone's face looks like a washed-out digital mess. Cinematographer Shelly Johnson is a long-time collaborator with Joe Johnston, who directed that Wolfman remake that proved so divisive. His work there was much more interesting that it is here, though it shares that kind of dark, shadowy aesthetic. The Expendables 2 could have done with a splash of colour to keep things a bit more vibrant. As it stands, everything is muddy browns and greys with red blood splashed over it. We're thankful for the blood to introduce that colourful element, but it doesn't really feel like enough. The first Expendables had some jungle settings and a couple of car chases, while this is much more restricted and dark. The digital photography does work in favour of the falseness of the violent scenes, but when things slow down you can't help but notice that it all looks rather hideous.
It feels strange to come away from a film I enjoyed this much with so many criticisms, but this is definitely one that will divide people. If you liked the first film, this is better in a lot of ways - most notably, the humor is much more consistent. If you hated The Expendables, however, this isn't going to turn you around. Personally, I think the franchise has developed a distinct voice and it would be interesting to see it continue. On the other hand, they'd better crank out a new one quickly before any of these guys pop their clogs.
*You'll notice that I didn't mention Jet Li in here. That's because, aside from a very brief appearance in the prologue, he isn't in the movie at all. And they gave him third billing!
MINORITY REPORT: With apologies to Roger Murtaugh, they're too old for this shit. And if you get that joke, you're probably going to buy a ticket to The Expendables 2, further lining the pockets of the shriveled Republicans who only leave the nursing home to cash in on your nostalgia. How does it feel subsidizing the Viagra regimen Ah-nold needs to knock up his housemaids? - Sean "Keanu Grieves" Hanson
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